Deeper listening will change your classroom


I said, you said.

Is conflict resolution about one side winning?

It’s not. Usually, a good resolution involves identifying how parties have a concern for both self and others. Social psychologists Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Z. Rubin discussed this as the “dual concern” concept of conflict management. The best resolutions involve this balancing of needs.

I had a personal lesson in this recently when, following a peer evaluation of my teaching, my colleague suggested that I provide more opportunities for my students to tell their stories. From her observation of our class, she told me that she believed the students wanted to share more about themselves than I was giving them time for.

As I thought about my colleague’s feedback, I reflected that while I did not consider myself to be involved with a conflict, in fact I didn’t recognize the students’ desire to engage more in class discussions by sharing their stories. I had not been as aware of their interests and needs as I might have been.

Pay attention, teacher

When I reflected on how I experienced some sense of frustration, I realized that on some level, in fact, there was a conflict. Conflict expert Kenneth W. Thomas explains that conflict is afoot when a person’s concerns are being frustrated.

I realized I was facing, on a personal level, theory that I knew intellectually but had not yet deeply applied. And so, I chose firstly to focus on understanding conflict, believing that if we understand the cause, we will likely be able to manage it more easily.

And if we are willing to learn more about each other, then we may be more willing to work more collaboratively to resolve conflict among us. I wanted all of us to have this common understanding of conflict before moving on to discussing ways to manage it.

Management experts Daria Prause and Bahaudin Mujtaba argue that if we can understand how the need to be seen and heard is manifest in different cultures, this can help move conflict resolution forward. That’s right — cultural considerations play a role in the management of conflict.

With my class of predominantly international students, we began to take a significant amount of time each class to learn about each other and our cultural differences. The class was called Understanding and Managing Conflict. In previous classes the students gained an understanding of some causes of conflict such as miscommunication, poor communication, bullying, exclusion, leadership style, gossip, unequal contribution to tasks and unco-operativeness.

Now we needed to look at how to manage these dynamics. This process includes making an effort to see and read cultural differences.

Concern for others

The students’ understanding of conflict resolution was enhanced as they worked in small groups through work-related, personal conflict cases. They determined the position of each party on the model, and brainstormed ways to reach compromise.

It became clearer to all of us, from our course material and from this group activity, that those who have a stronger concern for others than self will move from a position of avoiding resolution to an accommodating position.

We may be less likely to move toward a competing position if we have taken the time to learn about each other in a genuine way.

As the classes went on, we continued to cover the course objectives and spend time learning more about each other. It seemed the environment shifted as I got better at teaching with an acknowledgement of both my concerns and the students’ realities.

The model of dual concern theory, as well as the need to acknowledge culture, has now been helpful for my students and me as a focus for our discussions on conflict resolution.

When we are open to the possibility of cultural differences, we realize we do not only have to keep in mind multiple parties, but also multiple modes of expression. And when people experience a feeling of belonging, they are less likely to feel alienation from and/or competition with others.

I’m grateful that my colleague suggested I provide more opportunity for the students to share their stories. I learned about the power of constructive feedback and not to fear it.

From my students, I learned that if I provided a safe and comfortable learning environment, they would be more willing to share about themselves. As a group we were able to extend our learning.

Our practice of working to gain a better understanding of each other in the classroom mirrors good practice in conflict resolution. When we know better, we do better. Authentic and amazing sharing opportunities make all of us better and more willing to resolve our differences.

Author Bio: Susan Lidster is an Instructor in the School of Education at Thompson Rivers University